The Same Old Game, New Rules:
The Need for a New Team for the War of Ideas:
By Kevin McCarty
There has been much discussion about what is known as the War of Ideas to counter terrorism in the United States. Everything has been examined from how much and in what way we should play, to how we should organize and lead our “team”. One recurring answer that keeps coming up is the reestablishment of a United States Information Agency-like organization.
The most redeeming feature of the old USIA concept is that it was a team organized to play in the right game. The Soviet Union was actively spreading information to influence populations towards their ideological and political views and denigrate democratic ones. This was a direct challenge to influence how populations should behave and be governed, and one that was being received by many in a positive way. In fact, the results of this Soviet effort not only still resonates today in the way many parts of the world view the West, but many argue that today’s Russia is doing a similar thing, just without the communist ideology. It was a challenge that had to be met in the interest of our National Security.
The game today is still the same in the War of Ideas, but the teams and rules have changed. The terrorist teams, much like the Soviets, are spreading information to influence populations towards their views. Like the communists, terrorists want people to adopt their way of governance and behavior. Unlike the communists, who saw any religion as a threat to the state, terrorists believe their version of religion should be the state. Another major difference from the Soviets is that the terrorist teams are decentralized. Unlike the centrally managed Soviet effort, guided and run by the state, terrorists are guided by a common ideological vision rather than by a centralized command structure. For those of you familiar with the centralized/decentralized organization theory, this is significant. How you attack a centralized organization does not work against a decentralized one. Attacks on centralized structure (e.g. leadership attacks) only make the decentralized organization stronger. The battlefield for competing with a decentralized organization is all about the adoption of ideas, not about destroying its structure.
The rules of the game have changed as well. In the days of USIA, communications were centrally controlled. The information environment consisted of (compared to today) relatively few voices such as radio, TV and journals that had primarily a local reach. Access to audiences could be controlled by censorship and distribution limitations. Because of this you focused on creating voices that could reach and push your message to the audiences (e.g. what is now the modern day Broadcasting Board of Governors). With today’s technology, this has all changed. Now, with self-publishing on the Internet, there are literally millions of voices with no boundaries. Everyone has a voice today, and audiences choose what they want to hear and when they want to hear it. You can no longer just push information, but you must compete to earn audiences. This fundamentally changes the way in which you must approach messaging. The decentralized terrorists have adapted well to this environment, using the tactic of terror as a way to attract attention so that people will choose to look at and hear their message. For them, the power of the terror tactic is primarily in support of the media and ideas battlefield. We are trying to counter the media value of their tactics with security measures, and are still relying on old methods of creating channels to push messages. We are in the wrong place and in the wrong time.
To compete in this new world, we must do more than just choose a new leader or emulate a team of old. Just putting someone in charge, whether it is the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy or a new USIA is not sufficient. We must change our methods. It requires new thought leadership and new team members. Our current government team does not have the training, expertise, experience or methods to be effective. It also requires new rules. Our laws, based on an old communication environment where you can separate domestic and foreign influence, no longer reflect the reality of today’s world. They unduly hinder our ability to play in the game.
Changing the status quo will be a journey. There is no simple or quick fix, but it is something we must change. Ceding this game is not an option for our National Security. The first step in this journey is that we need an agent of change in the government. A person who has one foot firmly planted in the commercial worlds of entertainment, marketing and communications and the other in government. Most of the expertise needed for this agent of change lies in the commercial realm, but it is not directly portable expertise. The commercial world does not normally face the constraints of operating in the government, nor the intensity, depth and impact of National Security issues. Bringing this together requires a specialized hybrid.
This hybrid agent of change needs to accomplish three things. First, the agent needs to create a culture of change and vision. There is much that can be done with the current team and rules if new methods and team members are adopted. Leading this effort by putting out a National Security Strategy for Strategic Communications that reflects a new vision and concrete ways to get there is a first step. Meeting with, leading, coordinating and shepherding change in the departments and Agencies is crucial. Second, this person must have a seat at the national policy and strategy table. No message is more effective than the one of action. As policies and strategies are formulated and executed, this person needs to be the honest broker that makes sure that the desired messages are having the right effect on the desired audiences, and that actions and words are supportive. Third, this person needs to be the lead from the executive branch to the legislative branch to broker new legislation in this field. Current laws like the Smith-Mundt Act were never designed to work in today’s communications world. A new approach that allows the ability to operate while retaining the protections that acts like Smith-Mundt were designed for is essential. It can be done.
The only place that this hybrid agent of change could complete these tasks would be at the White House National Security Council staff. The broad reach across all agencies and departments, the policy and strategy coordination and interface with the legislative branch are areas that all fall squarely in this court. It must also be a full-time, focused job. This mission cannot be delegated to another agency head such as the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy for two reasons. One, it is a full-time effort and should not be diluted with the responsibilities of program management and execution. Second, the agent of change should not serve two masters (one hat as the Undersecretary responsible to the Secretary of State, and the other to the President) to avoid conflict of interests and the pressure of split loyalties.
Change is both possible and necessary. For the sake of our National Security, we must stop just discussing it while never actually doing anything except rearrange deck chairs and titles. Hiring the same type of coaches, managers and team players – all playing by the old rules – will not create a winning outcome.
Kevin McCarty served as the Director for Global Outreach on the National Security Council staff under two Presidents.